It started with seventy-one words and a simple suggestion.
"I know there are many people that had bad experiences at DSI but we don't talk about it. Maybe it's time we do," Vinny Valdivia, a former staffer at Chapel Hill's DSI Comedy Theater, wrote on Facebook July 2.
Within a few days, Valdivia's words prompted a flood of comments and posts detailing more than a decade of alleged intimidation, manipulation, sexual misconduct, and favoritism that would ultimately lead the theater's owner, Zach Ward, to step down from the Chapel Hill institution he founded seventeen years ago.
On Thursday, Ward announced that he would be taking an "indefinite leave" from DSI and that, unless he finds someone to take over, the theater will "likely be no more" come August.
Ward has denied the allegations, which range from stiffing performers on tips to an alleged encounter that former patron and student Grace Baldridge Carnes said may be best described as "a sexual assault gray area." Ward says the encounter, as Carnes described it, didn't take place.
"In a matter of hours on the Internet I was tried, convicted, and sentenced for something I did not do," said Ward, who also founded the N.C. Comedy Arts Festival, in a statement.
Performers have said they were discouraged from playing or teaching at other theaters and called out a system at DSI in which they paid $25 per month in dues and worked two monthly shifts at the theater for free to get stage time.
"I never took advantage of free labor. No one was ever forced to work for or with me and I did not take advantage of anyone," Ward said.
Perhaps the most troubling story to emerge following Valdivia's post was the account from Carnes, posted on Facebook three years to the day after she says Ward pushed her onto a Ping-Pong table in a dark room and had sex with her.
"After hearing from women from Boston to Chicago to the Triangle recount their stories to me (and in Vinny's original Facebook thread), I realized that if I didn't put my experience out there, then I would feel responsible if other young women unknowingly ended up in similar situations," she told the INDY in a Facebook message.
But while Carnes's post was incendiary, former DSI performers who spoke with the INDY say a culture of misogyny had taken root at the theater long before. At DSI, they say, a woman's stage time hinged on her appearance and willingness to go along with Ward's flirting.
"It started to come up month after month, season after season—new, young, pretty students coming in from UNC and getting promoted immediately up into the hierarchy of the classes and getting weekly routines, whereas some of my friends who were older or of the same age group but were maybe not thin and pretty were kind of left behind like an island of misfit toys even though we had put in the work and effort to learn," says Kate Harlow, a company member from 2011–16.
Like Harlow, Katie Mayo moved to North Carolina to be part of DSI. She was involved with the theater from 2006–09 and, at first, was performing nearly every weekend. Mayo says she and Ward were in a "consensual but secret" relationship for about six months, but after it ended and she started dating someone else, she began losing stage time.
"My all-women's group, Elaine, we were performing several times a month. We were drawing big crowds and we had to fight for shows," she says. Mayo says she saw four or five other women go through the same cycle at DSI.
In 2014, stand-up Virginia Wallace called out sexist behavior and a lack of stage time for women in a set at DSI. Wallace was a student or company member from 2011–14 and says she didn't have much interaction with Ward. She recalls a male comic who, after her set, devoted two minutes of his stage time to talking about her breasts.
"Nobody did anything, and it was just sort of horrifying," she says.
Comedy scenes in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York have recently been rocked by similar revelations that were also spurred by social media posts.
Gail Stern, cofounder of Chicago's Catharsis Productions, which uses comedy to tackle sexual assault, discrimination, and violence, suggests that comedy is an "accelerant" or "enabler" of the misogyny that permeates so many industries.
"Think of the comedy world as the alpha male playground," Stern says. "For women on stage, you're in this bind of 'I've got to laugh, I've got to play this off, I've got to say all those rape jokes are funny or they'll call me a special snowflake.'"
The fast-paced, unfiltered nature of improv means performers often reach for offensive stereotypes to get a laugh—whether intentionally or not. The "Yes And" covenant that tells improvisers their teammates will build on the story they create can make it difficult to stop inappropriate behavior in progress.
"I think that when people are first starting out, it's easy to go to the most shocking thing," says Victoria Elena Nones, founder of Women in Comedy, a network for women in the industry. "Because comedy has historically been a lot of that, I think that adds to the problem. You can always say I was joking."
This article appeared in print with the headline "No Joke"